the sentence: "I put it on the table" phonetically looks like: [ aɪ pʊ_dɪ_dɑn ðə 'teɪ bəl ]

and "I put it on the chair" phonetically looks like: [ aɪ pʊ_dɪ_dɑn ðə 'tʃɛər ]

I think the strongest stress is on the last content words: table and chair. Am I right?

When I pronounce these two sentences I feel that the word "put" also gets a bit of stress, a bit lower than the nouns. I may be wrong. I'm not a native speaker.

I think "put it on" is not a phrasal verb. Right? What words would you stress if you pronounce the sentences above? I'm talking about a simple context when someone asks me: where is my coat? and I simply answer "I put it on the chair."

Any suggestion would be appreciated. Thank you!

3 Answers 3


Here is an approximation to what SPE (The Sound Pattern of English) predicts for the stress contour. The Nuclear Stress rule applies to the constituents in the syntactic structure to make the last primary stressed syllable have a primary stress, and all other stresses in the same constituent are weakened by one degree. I've bracketed the constituents that the stress rule is applying to. I've assumed that "it" and "the" are exempt from stress.

First, the words are stressed:

[1I] [1put] it [1on] the [1table]

Next, the prepositional phrase is stressed:

[1I] [1put] it [2on the 1table]

Then the verb phrase is stressed:

[1I] [2put it 3on the 1table]

Finally, the whole sentence is stressed:

[2I 3put it 4on the 1table]

The stress might be adjusted by what has been called a rhythm rule to make stronger and weaker stresses alternate -- here, "on" might get stronger stress than "put".

Of course, if the context requires some emphasis or contrast, stress is modified accordingly.

  • If I wanted to make it more apparent that some non-traditional table is meant to be treated as such (e.g. an overturned cardboard box), I might put emphasis on "the". Admittedly, that might be a bit of a contrived example, but I think similar cases could be constructed for "it". Ultimately, the context is probably the most important part when determining where to place the emphasis. Also, it might be worth noting that placing the emphasis in the wrong place could be seen as meaning some offense or could come across as combative... Mar 6, 2015 at 21:59

I believe it depends very much on where the speaker needs to place the emphasis.

Q. Where did you say you put the white elephant? A. I put it on the table.

Q. I thought the charity box was under the table. It's not here. A. I told you I put it on the table.

Q. How did that strange letter come to be on the table? A. I put it on the table.

Q.Who put this on the table? A. I put it on the table (myself).

  • +1 Yes. I think there's also the question of "secondary stress element" -- "the word "put" also gets a bit of stress, a bit lower than the nouns."
    – Kris
    Mar 6, 2015 at 11:51
  • +1 It's even possible (if rarer) to stress "it" or "the", as in Q. "Did you put him on the table?" A. "I put it on the table." (e.g. correcting a mistake in English) or Q. "Which table did you put it on?" A. "I put it on the table." (e.g. where there is only one table).
    – Glen_b
    Mar 7, 2015 at 1:14
  • It is true of any sentence that if material in the sentence has already been mentioned before it becomes de-accented and won't take nuclear stress. This isn't about where the speaker wants to put the emphasis. They don't have any choice. In your answers the element that's taking the nuclear stress is just the last content word representing new information. Where a particular word has been misheard or misanticipated we call this contrastive stress but it just the same phenomenon. Not particularly helpful for the OP. We'd assume that chair and table are being said for the first time. Mar 9, 2015 at 14:00

The answer to your question depends upon the meaning you wish to communicate. This is because spoken English allows significant variations of meaning depending upon which words are emphasised.

This has reminded me of a game I remember from school: How many different meanings can you derive from the same sentence spoken with emphases on different words (and even different syllables within words).

  • Yes, I think that folks learning English often mistakenly believe that certain emphasis patterns are a critical part of basic pronunciation, but, except for a few odd cases, this is untrue. Rather, emphasis is used to supply subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) clues as to "unspoken" meanings. In an extreme case a slight change of emphasis can make an apparently innocuous phrase be interpreted as cheerful "thank you very much" or an angry "you're in big trouble".
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 6, 2015 at 21:10
  • @HotLicks That may be true about intonation but it's not really true about stress or nucleus placement. The context and the previous discourse normally dictate where the stress goers, it's not optional. Mar 9, 2015 at 14:02

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